Former Kansas football coach Glen Mason said he had an immediate thought once KU’s head-coaching position opened up in March: If I was the AD, the guy that I would go after is Buffalo’s Lance Leipold.
“Not that I get to see everybody in the country, but what I could see ... that guy’s a heckuva coach, a builder of programs,” Mason told The Star by phone on Monday afternoon. “You need a guy with substance.”
Mason believes Leipold — officially introduced as KU’s new football coach Monday morning — undoubtedly has that quality.
The two spent some time together in 2015, during Leipold’s first season as Buffalo’s coach. Mason said, as part of the Big Ten Network, he covered Leipold’s second game with the Bulls: a road contest at Penn State.
Mason previously had been impressed by Leipold’s eight-year run at Wisconsin-Whitewater when he went 109-6 and won six Division III national titles.
“I remember asking him distinctly, I said, ‘You know Coach, off the record, I said you had a lot of success at Wisconsin-Whitewater. Why Buffalo?’ I thought it was a legitimate question,” Mason said. “And he said, ‘Well you know, I had a lot of success at Whitewater. I want to see if I can have success at the next level.’ So that kind of impressed me.”
From there, Mason kept track of Leipold’s run at Buffalo, where he took the Bulls to three consecutive bowl appearances.
Mason, who says he thinks KU has recently “made some questionable hires; I thought that, not as a second-guesser, but even as they hired them,” had different emotions when he saw the Jayhawks picked Leipold.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a home-run hire. I’d think it’s a grand-slam hire,” Mason said. “Because looking at what needs to be done there ... he’s got the maturity, he’s got the determination. He’ll have stick-to-itiveness to himself.
“What I mean by that is there’ll be a lot of bumps in the road, but he’ll have a belief in what he’s doing, and he won’t keep changing with every bump. So many young guys have never been in that situation. That’s what happens. As soon as they hit a bump in the road, they change and go in a different direction and after about three years, they’re going no place.”
Leipold said Monday that he had discussions with both Mason and former KU coach Mark Mangino before taking the job, with both reiterating that KU is a place where winning is possible. Mason and Mangino have authored the best recent turnarounds in KU history, with Mason posting four winning seasons in his nine years and Mangino leading the Jayhawks to a 50-48 record in eight seasons with a 2008 Orange Bowl victory.
“Lance has had great success throughout his career. He’ll work hard and is known to establish a culture of success at every stop,” Mangino told The Star. “He now needs unwavering support in the KU community.”
Mason also believes Jayhawks fans have reason to get behind Leipold.
“I think he’s going in at the right time, because you know, they’re rock bottom. They can only go one place, and that’s up,” Mason said. “And they should be a lot better, you know what I mean? They should be a lot better.”
Mason, who won the Aloha Bowl at KU in 1992 and 1995, knows the challenges a KU rebuild can require. He said he inherited a program in 1988 that had only 51 scholarship players, and he also was there at a time when the Big Eight had national powers like Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma State.
“I thought, ‘You know, there’s a good chance I’m going to be selling insurance in three years,’” Mason said with a laugh. “But saying that, we attracted some good football players and turned it around.”
Mason believes Leipold has qualities that could create similar progress.
“I can tell you there’s only two types of coaches out there nowadays: There’s guys that love to coach and there’s guys that love being the coach. There’s a lot more guys that love being the coach out there, because of the way that coaches are being compensated now, if you get my drift,” Mason said. “Watching Lance, I can tell you he is one of those guys that loves coaching. You look at how he built the program at Whitewater, what he did Buffalo ... in my mind, I’ve got a great feeling for the University of Kansas.”
Mason said he made sure to bring up with Leipold that KU was a basketball school. Some football coaches, he says, are bothered by that, though he wasn’t during his tenure from 1988-96 while believing that positive results from each of the sports would only lift the other.
The old coach has reason to check in on KU. He has children who are KU graduates, and also has a nephew from New Jersey who is a sophomore at the school.
“Lawrence, Kansas, is a great town. They’ve got a rabid fan base. They’ve got some of the most loyal alums of any place that I’ve ever been, and I coached college football for 35 years,” Mason said. “If you get exposed to KU, you learn to love it.”